digital culture | July 25, 2011

Virginia Heffernan: Google Plus Needs to Cultivate Two Illusions to Succeed

In her latest New York Times Op-Ed column, Virginia Heffernan says she’s on Google+, and only has 20 friends. But, that's the way she likes it. Google, on the other hand, might not be too crazy about having that friend number stay low. To avoid having their new social network follow Friendster and MySpace into the abyss, Heffernan says the search giant needs to “cultivate two illusions.”

“The first is that they are absolutely packed, ” she says. Put simply, people want to be where the action is, and the providers want to give you the tally of millions you'll be joining. The second illusion is more complex, and critical to any business aiming to capitalize on social media. Basically, firms need to make the internet a destination, not just a thing you read. A “sheen of reality,” as Heffernan calls it, “is unique to the web....We have come to expect that information in pixels is something to read—and also a place to be.” It's why we say we're on the internet.

For a company, creating this perception is paramount. An online social experience must be immersive, but it must also feel like a place where users are missing out on real events if they’re not participating. Heffernan compares people's acceptance of Twitter and Facebook to currency: “paper money is valuable because people who use it believe it's valuable. Facebook and Twitter—right this minute—have value because a whole continent's worth of people believe they have value.” The “right this minute” is what keeps CEOs of social networks up at night. At any moment, the hot new social networking site can suffer catastrophic exoduses. That was the case with Friendster. Later MySpace, too, crumbled from rapid monetization that occurred at the expense of user experience.

The piece, timely, and brash, is trademark Heffernan. Written in snappy, colloquial language, it identifies how social networks continue to insinuate themselves into our lives, alerts us to what Google+ tells us about web culture, and manages to bring the all-important human and sociological element into the mix—specifically how this online culture continues to fit into, and utterly reshape, our reality.

Read more about web culture speaker Virginia Heffernan

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